Some teams have already completed the bulk of their winter shopping; however there are still some good free agents on the market and where they end up could have a domino effect in encouraging rival teams to keep up.
This part of the review focuses on the National League.
In 2015, the Central division was the star of the show as the St Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates all made it into the post-season. The LA Dodgers and New York Mets were relatively comfortable winners in the West and East respectively, with the latter being crowned as the NL Champions in the play-offs before losing to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.
NL Central – Cubs on the prowl
Although the Cardinals won the division last year, all of the talk was about the success of their bitter rivals the Chicago Cubs and how their exciting young group of players had blossomed ahead of schedule.
If Cards fans didn’t like the Cubbies getting all the attention then, the off-season has been even more painful.
The Cubs have added three quality players to their roster in Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and John Lackey, with the latter two leaving the Cardinals as free agents and deciding to go to the other side of the rivalry. Heyward’s defection was particularly painful as he reportedly took less money from the Cubs than offered to him by the Cardinals and explained his decision by saying he felt the Cubs had the brighter future.
The Cubs’ first trip to St Louis in 2016 comes in mid-April, so we won’t have to wait long into the regular season to see what Cardinals fans think of that.
The Pirates have been relatively quiet this off-season and even though they still have the bulk of their roster that won 98 games in 2015, repeating that feat will not be easy without making much in the way of improvements. St Louis has added free agent pitcher Mike Leake, but they’ve also lost Lance Lynn for the season due to Tommy John elbow surgery and rumours of them adding a bat in the form of Alex Gordon or Chris Davis have yet to result in an actual deal being made.
Without another decent batting addition for the Cardinals, it would be fair to say the Cubs have pushed ahead of both of their main division rivals on paper.
NL West – major upgrades in Arizona, but to what extent?
The biggest division shake-up has come in the NL West courtesy of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ capture of Zack Greinke.
For the D-Backs to come out of nowhere and sign an elite free agent pitcher was a big statement in itself, to do so by signing a player that their two main division rivals were desperate to obtain (or retain in the LA Dodgers’ case) made it all the more significant.
It made sense for the D-Backs to follow up that signing with another bold move and that’s exactly what they did by completing a trade with the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Shelby Miller. Whilst Arizona have been criticised for what they gave up in the deal – including shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson who they signed with the first overall pick in the amateur draft earlier this year – in the short-term they’ve improved their team in a major way.
The important thing from there in the division was how the Giants and Dodgers responded.
San Francisco have added two quality free agent pitchers in Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, whilst LA have recently signed a good pitcher in Scott Kazmir and reportedly are close to agreeing a deal with Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda.
The difference has been that whilst the Giants’ moves have appeared decisive, the Dodgers have seemingly ended up with players down their pecking order after yet more deals fell to pieces (Hisashi Iwakuma’s three-year deal was taken off the table due to injury concerns and a trade for Aroldis Chapman went down the pan when news broke of a potential suspension coming his way due to an alleged domestic violence incident).
It looks like being a very tight division between these three teams. Adding in the inexperience of new manager Dave Roberts and I’d have the Dodgers slipping behind the Giants, with the D-Backs pretty even with LA for second place. The Dodgers are still a threat to add further players this off-season though, so that could change quickly.
NL East – Waiting for a big move
There are three genuine contenders in both the Central and West, but in the East we can bring that down to two with the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies in rebuilding mode and the Miami Marlins being neither fish nor fowl (or perhaps more accurately they are fish and foul, depressing as that is considering some of the superb young players they have).
The Washington Nationals were an almighty disappointment in 2015 and that suggested there would be some major changes over the off-season. Not so, at least not so far. Dusty Baker has been brought in as their new manager and Daniel Murphy, the Mets’ play-off hero last year, has signed on as a free agent, but that’s about it.
They reportedly made a big play to sign Jason Heyward, so potentially there’s some money there to be spent and it wouldn’t be a big surprise if one of the available outfielders, Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton in particular, ended up in the U.S. capital over the coming weeks.
The Nationals’ hopes of regaining ground on the Mets has been helped by the latter keeping out of the main free agent mix. New York has revamped their middle infield by trading for Pittsburgh’s second baseman Neil Walker and signing free agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, which are solid enough moves but not ones to get many pulses racing in Queens.
It’s also hard not be sceptical about the Mets’ ownership. They have such an exciting young (and therefore relatively cheap) group of pitchers that it would be criminal not to take advantage of the opportunity they have over the next few years. Maybe a reunion with free agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes will come about soon, especially as they’ve had a stroke of luck with Michael Cuddyer deciding to retire with a year remaining on his contract, but it’s just as likely they will make another minor move or two and hope for the best, which really isn’t good enough for a New York team.
They would still be favourites for the division right now, but a big signing for the Nationals and a Spring Training injury or two for the Mets (if the owners are reluctant to invest to replace missing players) could close the gap and make it a tighter race than you would expect considering the Mets’ dominance in 2015.